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L.A. Train Wreckage Search Ends; 25 Dead

Emergency responders remove a body from the Metrolink commuter train that collided with a Union Pacific freight train Friday in Chatsworth, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008. (AP Photo/ Rene Macura)
AP Photo/Rene Macura
Authorities say they've finished the grim search for victims of the Los Angeles commuter train collision and the death toll stands at 25.

It took nearly a day to sift through the mangled remains of a commuter train that collided head-on with a freight train Friday. About 135 people were injured in the nation's deadliest rail disaster in 15 years.

The death toll stood at 24 after the search ended but one critically injured passenger, described as a 50-year-old man, later died in the hospital. Authorites expect that the death toll may rise even further as several other victims are in critical condition.

A preliminary investigation found that "it was a Metrolink engineer that failed to stop at a red signal and that was the probable cause" of Friday's collision with a freight train in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said. She said she believes the engineer, whose name was not released, is dead.

"When two trains are in the same place at the same time somebody's made a terrible mistake," said Tyrrell, who was shaking and near tears as she spoke with reporters.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced Saturday that the search for bodies had ended.

Of the 135 injured, 81 were transported to hospitals in serious or critical condition. A telephone survey of five hospitals conducted before the death of the 25th victim found nine of 34 patients still critical. Many were described as having crush injuries.

"Words can't explain or in any way console those who have lost loved ones, those who at this moment still don't know what the condition or status of their loved ones is," Villaraigosa said at a news conference. "I can only tell you that these firefighters and police officers have worked feverishly through the night."

Injured people scrambled to reach family members while others helped the injured, reports CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes. And a priest who was on the train stood vigil over the dying, giving some last rites.

While Metrolink has accepted responsibility, the National Transportation Safety Board says it has recovered the data recorders form the trains and one video recorder and will continue to investigate the cause of the crash, reports Hughes.

The collision occurred on a horseshoe-shaped section of track in Chatsworth at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, near a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath Stoney Point Park. There is a siding at one end of the tunnel where one train can wait for another to pass, Tyrrell said.

"Even if the train is on the main track, it must go through a series of signals and each one of the signals must be obeyed," Tyrrell told reporters. "What we believe happened, barring any new information from the NTSB, is we believe that our engineer failed to stop ... and that was the cause of the accident.

"We don't know how the error happened," she continued, "but this is what we believe happened. We believe it was our engineer who failed to stop at the signal."

Tyrrell said Metrolink determined the cause by reviewing dispatch records and computers.

She said the engineer worked for a subcontractor, Veolia, used by Metrolink since 1998, but had driven Metrolink trains since 1996. She said she didn't know if the engineer ever had any previous problems operating trains or had any disciplinary issues.

CBS station KCBS-TV in Los Angeles is reporting that the passenger train engineer may have sent a text message to a friend approximately one minute prior to the crash.

Ray Garcia, a train conductor with Metrolink until 2006, said he knew the engineer involved in the crash for nine years and called him qualified and talented. He declined to name the engineer.

"I'm very sad that that happened," Garcia said. "It's terrible."

Garcia said he knows the stretch of track where the collision occurred and believes engineers are warned twice with yellow lights before reaching a red light at the end of a siding.

The Metrolink train, heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County, was carrying 220 passengers, one engineer and one conductor when it collided with the Union Pacific freight, with a crew of three, about 4:30 p.m. Friday. It is common in California for freight and commuter trains to use one track.

The crash forced the Metrolink engine well back into the first passenger car, and both toppled over. Two other passenger cars remained upright.

By late Saturday morning, the Metrolink engine had been pulled out of the mangled passenger car, which was raised by a crane and surrounded by tarps. Bulldozers pulled away chunks of metal.

Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said his firefighters had never seen such carnage.

"It's the worst feeling in the world because you know what you're going to find," said fire Capt. Alex Arriola, who had crawled into the bottom of the smashed passenger car. "You have to put aside the fact that it's someone's husband, daughter or friend."

Police set up what they called a unification center at a local high school to try to connect worried people with information about friends or relatives who they believed were aboard the train.

Families of eight of the dead had been notified and two women who were pronounced dead at hospitals were unidentified, coroner's Assistant Chief Ed Winter said.

Worried relatives and friends gathered at nearby Chatsworth High School to wait for news as rescue workers delicately dismantled the passenger car.

"That was her train and she's not home," said Debra Nieves said of her sister, Donna Remata, 49. "But until I find out for sure that they found her, I'm not going to leave."

Firefighters were rotated in and out of the scene to prevent emotional exhaustion, Hogan said.

"There are some things we are trained for, there are some things I don't care what kind of training you have, you don't always prepare for," Hogan said. "This situation, particularly early on, with people inside the train, with the injuries, and with people moaning and crying and screaming, it was a traumatic experience."

Metrolink launched its service in Southern California in 1992. More than 45,000 commuters board Metrolink trains weekdays in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Until Friday, Metrolink's worst disaster was on Jan. 26, 2005, in suburban Glendale, where a man parked a gasoline-soaked SUV on railroad tracks. A Metrolink train struck the SUV and derailed, striking another Metrolink train traveling the other way, killing 11 people and injuring about 180 others. Juan Alvarez was convicted this year of murder for causing the crash.

Friday's train crash was the deadliest since Sept. 22, 1993, when an Amtrak train plunged off a trestle into a bayou near Mobile, Ala., moments after the trestle was damaged by a towboat; 47 people were killed.